Today, I am proud to present the 1st Part of the story of Clemantine Wamariya from Rwanda.
Clemantine was born in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, in 1988. Her father was a self-made businessman. when he married Clemantine’s mom, he only owned a small garage and over the years, he gradually built a small public transport company. By the time Clemantine was born, her father was the proud owner of a small fleet of minibuses.
Clemantine, her sister Claire and her brother Claude – whom they affectionately called ‘Pudi’ for he never parted with either his Adidas or his Puma sneakers – received a very strict upbringing. Their mother, a stay at home mom, never tolerated a lie in her house and taught them to be close to God in all things.
Clemantine, the youngest of the three children, was an inquisitive young girl, hungry of knowledge, wanting to learn about everything. She would spend her time querying the adults around her about everything and anything, from the traditions of the South-East Asians and Middle Easterners businesspeople who lived in Rwanda to the meaning of life. Her family had nicknamed her ‘cassette’ (audio tape) as she repeated everything she heard. That trait of her character might seem amusing, but it distressed her mother, a conservative woman, and it made her extremely worried about her youngest daughter’s future. For her generation, it was improper for a girl to be too curious or too outspoken. She tried to impart upon her daughter that aspect of the Rwandan culture, but to no avail for her daughter had a mind of her own. Little did they know that her boldness was going to be one of her most important survival assets in the years to come.
Clemantine was two years old and had just started kindergarten when the war erupted in Rwanda. From October 1st, 1990 and for the rest of her life a new incomprehensible vocabulary ‘intambara’ – ‘war’ in Kinyarwanda – sneaked in her life and became a permanent fixture of her everyday life.
Though she knew nothing about what was going on in the outside world, that ‘intambara’ brought about many changes in her family’s life. In fact, the war turned her life upside down. In the first months of the war, her mother abruptly pulled her daughter out of school, weary about the increasing number of men harboring flags of different colors and singing and shouting words the little girl did not understand. It is much later in life that Clemantine learned that the men she saw in those days belonged to the newly formed political parties.
As insecurity increased in the neighborhoods, so did the sensation of constant fear in their household. No one explained anything to her, but she was intuitive enough to notice the changes. The family stayed put in the house all hours of the day, except for their father who still went to work. All curtains closed, day and night, and they had even stopped going to church by fear of exposing their children. Pickpockets were everywhere and different houses in the neighborhood were robbed and the perpetrators warned they would come back for more looting. Some houses were attacked with ‘grenades’ – another word the little girl had no idea what it meant, only that she heard that it wounded and killed people.
The housekeepers were sent back to their villages and the family stopped received guest as they had before. As Clemantine could not go to school and could no longer go and spend the night at her best friend’s house, her brother Pudi would sit with her and tell her stories to keep her mind busy and give her an impression that all was somehow normal.
But things did not get better, on the contrary. In early 1994, three years into the war, the parents made a decision that was going to change all their lives forever: to send their two daughters, Claire and Clemantine, at their maternal grandmother’s in the province Butare, in the south of Rwanda, near the Burundi border. The parents stayed behind in Kigali with their brother Pudi and promised to join them as soon as possible.
The girls loved their grandmother, so the sadness of parting momentarily with their parents and their sibling was counterbalanced with the happiness of seeing their elder. On their way, the van stopped to pick up two of their cousins, and other kids. In Butare, they found some of their cousins waiting for them at the house. They too had been sent to their grandmother’s and their parents had stayed behind.
Their grandmother’s house was a traditional house surrounded with a bed of flowers and it normally felt safe but not this time. Clemantine sensed that ‘intambara’ was still all around them – from the way the elderly woman watched over them and refused to allow them to go anywhere out of her sight. One day, she took the kids to sleep at another house and a few days later, as they were deeply asleep, their grandmother woke them and hurried them in a hushed voice to get out and house of the house and run.
Four years of war had thought them not to ask too many questions, so they obeyed and run outside disorderly but in silence. 15 years old Claire grabbed her sister’s hand and run without looking behind till they reached a banana plantation down the hill and went in between the plants to hide. They had no idea where their cousins and grandmother were.
To their surprise, they found other people already hiding there, some wounded and bleeding and their faces distorted by the great deal of pain they were in. Clemantine was too young to understand the nature of the cuts, the blood, questions were rushing in her head – what had happened, who had done it – but she knew better than to ask.
They could hear screams in the distance, awful agonizing screams, sounds that seemed inhuman and unbearable to her ears.
After a while, they resumed their flight and walked for days, making sure they kept away from the main roads. They met other people fleeing and little by little a small crowd started forming. A man told them that he knew the way to Burundi, so they followed him to the border. They had to walk through the marsh to get to the Akanyaru, the river separating Rwanda and Burundi.
It was an ugly sight: bodies were floating on the Akanyaru river, lifeless. But there again, there was no time for questions they had to keep moving so they can reach the other side and get as far as possible from this living hell.
Their path was strewn with corpses, people who had died on the way, slumped by the side of the road. The merciless rains of the high season did not spare them either, falling in spurts and soaking them to the marrow of their bones. They found safety in an empty house for a night and then in a vacated school, along with other refugees. They stayed there to rest and regain their forces. Clemantine’s feet were bleeding and she had lost practically all her toenails. They had barely eaten anything for days. The only food they could find were berries from the forest, and like death, hunger had become a constant and undesirable companion, one impossible to chase away.
Extraordinarily, given her young age, Claire spontaneously and naturally stepped into the role of head of their little household of two. At no moment did her sister saw her crying or showing any distress, and if she was ever scared, she did a good job at never showing it. In the first days, Claire would pray out loud, but one day, she just stopped praying and Clemantine never heard her calling on God for anything. For years to come, her oldest sister was going to be rock on which to lean. Once a careless teenager with dreams of her own, Claire instinctively made her priority to fill the emotional void created in Clemantine’s life by their abrupt severing from all the family they had ever known, and made a habit put her younger sibling needs ahead of her own needs, something Clemantine will forever be grateful for. A bond stronger than everything they had ever known was forged between them, one nothing could ever break, except perhaps the death of either.
The two sisters never parted fearful to lose one another or to be taken advantage of in this strange shelter. They never confided to anyone that they did not know where their parents were. Instead, when people asked them, they would just say that they were behind and will join them soon. Not only didn’t Clemantine and her sister say anything about their parents and their beloved brother to strangers, they never talked to each other about them either. It was as though they had made an unspoken pact to not speculate out loud at what could have happened to them.
After a few days of rest, Claire took her sister and they went to the nearby village looking for food. They suspected that there were some families living near the school because they could hear children playing nearby during the day.
Indeed, they found a woman plowing her field and she took them to her house. She didn’t ask them too many questions, she probably knew what was happening across the border. She lived in small hut, much alike the ones in their home country and she lived there with her husband and four small kids. Claire and Clemantine stayed there a few days, working with her in her field during the day – earning their food for the first time of their lives – and sleeping in with her children on a bed of straw, a further dramatic change from the life they knew in Kigali.
A few weeks later, they saw a crowd of hundred or maybe a thousand people walking by the house. There were men, women, children, all disheveled and in a state of shock. At their sight, Claire and Clemantine knew it was time to move again. They said goodbye to the Burundian family, and joined the crowd, not really knowing where they were going but then again, it did not really matter.
There were so many people, Clemantine started hoping that her family was somewhere in the crowd. So she would walk back and forth calling her brother’s name till someone pulled her back in the line and intimated her to remain silence.
After a few days and countless kilometers, the Red Cross came to their rescue and they created a spontaneous refugee camp. The aid workers counted them and dipped their hands in indelible ink so as not to count anyone twice. They didn’t ask anything about them, not their age or name, or where their parents were. They just handed them a tent, two water jugs, two itchy blankets, a plastic bag and a pot.
It wasn’t only Claire who had grown so quickly. Once very talkative and cheerful, Clemantine became more distant with people and less communicative and she never allowed herself to cry. Not once. In just a few months, she had gone from being a little, careless, to becoming an adult-like creature in a child’s body. They were long gone those days where she was a little girl who lacked nothing. She was now a destitute person, stateless and living in a tent alternately assaulted by unkind rains or burnt by the sun.
Not only did she lose her life as she knew it, Clemantine also felt as though she was disappearing and turning into a simple number. One of the reasons was that none of the Red Cross workers ever addressed her by her name. She doesn’t even recall them ever asking her how she was called. Instead, they gave her a number and asked that she remember it when they did the food distribution. Imagine asking a six-year-old girl that. But there too, her survival instinct took care of engraving that number in her head.
Food was scarce and they had to stand in line for hours to get their rations of maize and beans. The noise of trucks with logos of the UNHCR – United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – and the WFP – World Food Program – announced the arrival of food, but the two girls did not like to go to fight for it as other kids did. The only time the care worker seemed to remember that they were kids was when they brought biscuits, once every month or so. The maize was barely edible and took hours to cook on their makeshift stove made of three rocks and firewood.
Getting water was also a big hassle. It took two or three hours a day to fetch water by the river and while there, they had to ensure no one stole their pot, which was used not only for cooking but also for drawing water. They thus had to learn to guard their meager possessions reduced to the clothes they wore and what they had received at the camp, the most valuable item of all being the cooking pot.
They had to learn to fend for their meagre effects, the pot being the most precious of them. Clemantine’s clothes were invaded by lice and so were her hair. At her great despair, her sister took her to a man who had a razor and had become the impromptu barber of the camp, and they shaved her beautiful hair, the last fragment of her identity as she saw it at that young age.
Their biggest moment of scare during their time in the camp was when Claire caught dysentery and for days, she was between life and death. Clemantine was scared to find herself alone in the world but thank God, an elderly couple that lived in the tent next to theirs took care of her sister and gradually brought her back to life.
They had been in the camp for about a year when a young Congolese social worker fell in love with Claire and asked her to marry him. After resisting him for a while she finally gave in. Though she was only sixteen, she knew she was an easy prey and having a husband somehow protected her. After the marriage – a simple ceremony at the camp, Claire and her husband left for Bujumbura, to get their marriage certificate, and from there, they made their way to Uvira, in Congo, her husband’s hometown.
As Clemantine did not have any papers to leave the camp, she had to stay alone for a while and her brother-in-law would come back to pick her up. As she watched them leave, that heartbreaking sense of abandonment she had felt many times since leaving Kigali resurfaced and the fear that they would never come back for her could not leave her. During their absence, she remained in front of her tent, day and night, her eyes riveted on the road. But her brother-in-law kept his promise and came back to pick her up to take her to the Congo.
The girl was physically exhausted from the long months in the camp and the sleepless nights waiting for her in-law, she slept during most of the ride till they reached Uvira. After living in a dwarf, one-color tent city for almost two years, it was weird to see a real city made of real houses.
There, her sister was waiting for her with a big tribe of Congolese, her in-laws, her husband’s aunts, cousins, all welcoming her and caring for her. A feeling she had long forgotten.
Something else she had to get used to again was to be living in a house and sleeping in a bed for she had been living outdoors for a year and a half. At night, she would sometimes wake and try to touch the ceiling with her hand, a familiar gesture from the times she slept in a tent.
She had found her sister pregnant and within a few months, she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Mariette. As her sister had done for her during their long months on the road, Clemantine was overprotective of her niece, not wanting anything to ever happened to her. The only time she parted from her niece when was she started going to school.
Though they had no news of their parents and their brother, they felt as though they had found a home, and already imagined what their life would be like in their new country.
Uvira was a beautiful historical city of about a hundred thousand people. It was located 130 km south of Bukavu, the provincial capital of South-Kivu and the nearest border to Rwanda. The lake in itself was also a marvel. Lake Tanganyika is the world’s longest freshwater lake and it is bordered by four countries – Tanzania, Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Burundi, and Zambia.
It was a wonderful peaceful life and the girls developed a sense of belonging
It was a wonderful and peaceful life and the girls developed a sense of belonging, a mischievous illusion that did not let them anticipate that this curse of intambara, this war that they had fled and left behind in Rwanda two years earlier was going to cross the borders and come to find them in their quiet rural town.In October 1996, Zaire plunged into what is now called the First Congolese War, when the Rwandan army invaded Zaire, triggering one of the biggest conflicts and the longest humanitarian crisis the continent has never known to date.
In Part 2 of our story, I will tell you how our dear Clemantine, 9 years old, her sister Claire, 18 years old, found themselves once again on the road to nowhere, fleeing the second war of their short lives. With a little baby of a few months.
CONTRIBUTOR: Um’Khonde Habamenshi